That sucking sound you hear is the entirety of the past decade getting pulled into the cultural-take mill, where columnists like me chew it up, reconstitute it, and portion it out in delicious, consumable listy treats. There’s nothing like the slow turn of time’s odometer to inspire our deepest organizational impulses, and nothing like the end of a decade to arbitrarily inspire that most dreadful of existential questions: Where did the time go?
Spoiler: You frittered it away online. I know, it might not seem like you did, but you did. In 2010, a mere 76 percent of Americans were what you’d call Internet users (with 1.7 million of them staring smitten at themselves through the new front-facing cameras of the iPhone 4). That’s up to 90 percent today, leaving the term “Internet user” about as useful as “air breather."
So suffused with networked culture is life today that if anything seems novel looking back 10 years, it’s that we used to speak about the Internet in terms that suggested it was under our control — naively registering its oncoming force like a problem to get out in front of, rather than a train.
For one thing, a general surge in usership (especially via mobile devices) made 2010 a year of telling crashes — Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare (remember them?), PayPal, and upstart trouble-distributors WikiLeaks were among the many sites and services that experienced major disruptions, straining to satisfy bursts of traffic and falling offline for now-unthinkable stretches of several hours at a time. These conditions led Internet prophets to spend the year forecasting the threat of an approaching “exaflood” of data, warning whoever would listen that our only salvation would be miraculously evaporating the data (and our faith) into something called the “exacloud.” But these were only the first signs of the gathering storm.
The trusty moral panic that typically accompanies a new technology (e.g. “[form of media] is rotting your brain!”) seemed somehow more resonant in 2010, as Nicholas Carr expanded his 2008 essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” into a book trawling the thinning shallows of consciousness in the Internet age, and as questions concerning the Internet’s actual-factual deleterious effects on our minds (i.e., brain rot) started filtering into the mainstream.
And this Huxley-esque discomfort was matched by a mounting Orwellian dread regarding the permanent record that our personal tech was starting to assemble on us — through our burgeoning social-media habits, our lengthening chat histories, our step-by-step location logs. “Far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world,” Jeffrey Rosen wrote for The New York Times in a piece called “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” “the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.”
And even doomier feelings were beginning to swirl around the so-called Internet of Things, as the tendrils of technology started creeping into the walls of our houses, wiring our suddenly “smart” thermostats and refrigerators and sous-vide wands (how is that a thing, by the way?) — and rendering anything untouched by the network implicitly “dumb.”
“The more we trust to the Internet, the more dependent we are on it," fretted a post on the Economist blog (remember blogs?!). “The more interconnected the world becomes, the more we have to lose from catastrophic failure. Terrorist attacks, hackers’ vandalism and plain old disasters could wreak havoc on a world where everything is connected to a giant electronic brain.”
Elsewhere, others were starting to pick up on the increasingly clear mall-ification of the once Wild West of the Web. “The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world,” Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff wrote in a piece for Wired. “Now they’re doing what industrialists do best — finding choke points. And by the looks of it, we’re loving it.”
The good news is that this surge of change (and boost in usership) 10 years ago inspired an entire movement to maintain the openness of the Internet, as “net neutrality" that year graduated from techie buzzword to living legislation. The bad news — well, apart from the repeal in 2018 of that very same net neutrality — is that despite all of the detailed doomsaying and prognosticating and fear-stoking and warnings, all of these uncertainties haven’t just hung around, they’ve reached a full boil. The pull of the Internet is stronger, its presence inescapable, its current more forceful.
What, besides a marked decrease in the appearance of Keyboard Cat, has really changed about the Internet since 2010? If anything, it seems like the Internet spent the decade flipping the script. In 2019, it’s using us. Here’s hoping within the next 10 years, we find a way to reboot.